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Asking the clergy: Why are sunrise services held on Easter?

Thomas W. Goodhue

Thomas W. Goodhue Credit: Newsday / Kathy Kmonicek

On Easter Sunday, Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant congregations celebrate Christ’s resurrection with services that either begin or end around sunrise. This week’s clergy discuss why these early-morning services are especially meaningful to observant Christians.

The Rev. Thomas W. Goodhue

Executive director, the Long Island Council of Churches

The four gospels that made it into the New Testament report that early Sunday morning, women who followed Jesus went to the tomb where the Romans placed his body after executing him. Because they learned at dawn that Jesus had been raised from the dead, Christians often gather at dawn on Easter to celebrate the resurrection. I particularly like to see the sun rise over the water, which has a way of reminding me that each new day is a gift. In many communities, sunrise services are often ecumenical events, held outside any one house of worship, including Christians from many denominations and sometimes people of other faiths. The Long Island Council of Churches, our region’s largest ecumenical and interfaith organization, invites one and all to our Easter dawn worship service at Jones Beach State Park in Wantagh. It includes a United Methodist preacher (me), the choir from the Woodbury congregation of the New Apostolic Church, and Soh Young Lee-Segredo and members of her Multicultural Peace Mission Choir. We are honored to be one of the first interdenominational organizations that the New Apostolic Church has joined anywhere in the world. The Gospel according to John tells us that Jesus prayed just before his death that all of his followers “might be one,” (John 17:21) so it is a joy to take small steps toward unity as we celebrate the resurrection. M>

The Rev. Nikolas Karloutsos

Assistant pastor, The Archangel Michael Greek Orthodox Church of Port Washington

Although the Eastern Orthodox Church does not celebrate a sunrise service on Easter Sunday morning per se, it does recognize the significance of the dawning day and the motif of light overcoming darkness as proclaimed and celebrated in the Church’s holy Scripture and holy tradition. Following the chronological commemoration of Christ’s crucifixion, death and burial on Thursday and Friday, during the service of Holy Saturday morning, we read the Gospel narrative of the myrrh-bearing women who came to Christ’s tomb to anoint his body “as the first day of the week began to dawn.” (Matthew 28:1) They (and in turn, we) find the stone rolled back and the tomb empty and therefore become first witnesses of the resurrection. Later on Saturday night, the church begins a vigil service at 11 p.m. It is in the pre-sunrise hours of Sunday — the church lighted by Paschal candles held by the faithful — that we celebrate the divine liturgy, reading from John’s Gospel that the “light of man shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.” (John 1:5) Just like the darkness of night slowly gives way to the light of dawn and a sunrise is not in fact a sudden event, the celebration of Christ’s resurrection in the Orthodox Christian Church does not jump from Friday to Sunday. But rather, it reflects an ongoing transformation that more closely resembles the crosses (struggles) and resurrections (victories) of our daily lives — just as the darkness of the church is slowly overcome by the candlelight, the sorrow of the season is transformed into joyful cries of triumph, for today, “Christ is Risen!”

The Rev. Dr. Cecily P. Broderick y Guerra

Vice president for mission, St. John’s Episcopal Hospital, Far Rockaway

The Easter Sunrise Service is a contemporary version of an ancient service known as the Easter Vigil. The Easter Vigil (Great Easter Vigil or Paschal Vigil) was celebrated between sunset and sunrise on the eve of Easter. As the church grew, this celebration developed religious and social functions. The readings told the history of salvation from creation to the resurrection. Converts were baptized, and Christians who had been removed from the church because of sin were welcomed back, and the first Communion service of Easter was celebrated. This lengthy service was timed to end at dawn to remember and give thanks for the resurrection of the son at the rising of the sun. Protestant congregations retain key elements of this ancient service in their sunrise Easter celebrations. The first recorded Easter sunrise service took place in England in 1732. The unmarried men in a Moravian congregation gathered to pray all night on the Saturday before Easter. Their vigil ended at sunrise in the town graveyard where they sang hymns of praise to the risen in the presence of faithfully departed Christians. It soon became the custom for the whole congregation to join this Easter morning service. There are churches in the southern United States that hold sunrise services in cemeteries to remember and celebrate the promise that Jesus’ rising from death and the grave holds for faithful followers. Today, churches hold Easter services at sunrise in their sanctuaries and outdoors. These services are modeled after the normal Sunday worship or offer songs and lessons that praise risen Christ.

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